Climate Negotiations

COP22: Can we UNF*CK the UNFCCC?

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The outcome of the latest UN climate negotiations is a page of bold promises, stirring calls, and grand statements, woefully empty of anything actionable.

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cop22The outcome of the latest UN climate negotiations is a page of bold promises, stirring calls, and grand statements, woefully empty of anything actionable.

John Foran is professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-founder of the Climate Justice Project.

At a climate change conference
a colleague tells me 2 degrees
is a just a benchmark for climate negotiations
I tell him 2 degrees
is a gamble
at 2 degrees my islands, the Marshall Islands
is already under water
this is why our leaders push
for 1.5
Seems small
like 0.5 degrees
shouldn’t matter
like 0.5 degrees
are just crumbs
like the Marshall Islands
must look
on a map
just crumbs you
dust off the table, wipe
your hands clean of

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner,
Marshall Islands poet and climate activist

by John Foran

My title is blunt, vulgar even. My mom and maybe my editor are going to be upset with me. But can any of us imagine how frustrating beyond words it must be for someone from a small island state or a drought-stricken African nation, a going-underwater Asian country, or a progressive Latin American nation to be at the annual two week-long COP 22 [Twenty-second meeting of the Conference of the Parties] meeting of the UNFCCC – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – and not be able to do anything.

To wait – and ask politely, over and over – for the wealthy nations and the big emitters to do something other than offer you crumbs.

I think if I was forced to play a game that was set up in a way I didn’t have even a chance to win, I’d try to change the rules, or having tried that and failed, not play.

Of course, tell that to a gladiator in ancient Rome’s cruel games. Or a voter in America’s formally free but actually rigged democratic elections for president. Because that’s exactly where we are right now in the climate justice movement, in the U.S., and around the world.

It’s not time to mince words. It’s time to wake up.

UN F*ck number 1:
The Orange Elephant in the Room

Of the zillions of words that have been written about the election that just brought Donald Trump to power in the United States, I think David Bollier hit the nail most squarely on the head: “The election of a narcissistic, authoritarian bigot with no experience in politics and no serious ideas about how to solve the country’s problems, reveals the dysfunctions of the US constitutional system and its two major political parties.”

Coming on the second day of COP 22, this certainly threw things into major emotional and political disarray. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, present in Marrakesh, referred to the terrifying facts this way: “Obviously, an election took place in my country. And I know it has left some, here and elsewhere, feeling uncertain about the future. I obviously understand that uncertainty,” but he went on whistling in the dark about presidents finding it hard to enact the things they have promised during an election (in this case, taking the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, the 2015 global climate treaty that COP 22 was convened to start to implement).

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former right-wing president of France (now looking like a centrist because Marine Le Pen, a truly fascist Trump-like candidate, has emerged as the favorite in next year’s French presidential elections) proposed a carbon tax on American-made goods if Trump pulls out of the climate accord, saying that as president, he would “demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax … of 1 to 3 percent for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies.” This was echoed by Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, Mexico’s Undersecretary for Environmental Policy and Planning: “We will apply any kind of policy necessary to defend the quality of life for our people, to protect our environment and to protect our industries.”

Finally, even right-wing media personality Bill O’Reilly of Fox News said that Trump “should accept the Paris treaty on climate to buy some goodwill overseas,” arguing perversely that the Paris Agreement “doesn’t really amount to much” anyway. So while the UNFCCC will forge ahead, Trump will do what he wants with fossil fuel extraction at an unprecedented, game-changing level for the climate.

UN F*ck number 2:
No forward movement even on the Paris Agreement

In this, O’Reilly was partially correct (though for the wrong reasons, of course). Every activist knows now that nothing much really happens at a COP. Not much was even supposed to happen at this COP. But it’s been worse than even our own low expectations. And this is the real problem.

Let’s take a look at the official “outcome,” the “Marrakech Action Proclamation: For Our Climate and Sustainable Development” (pdf) that was read out at the end of the meetings to the assembled nations in full plenary. Hailing itself as a “proclamation to signal a shift towards a new era of implementation and action on climate and sustainable development,” in reality it is little more than a meager one-page set of bold promises, stirring calls for things, and grand statements, woefully empty of anything actionable. Honestly not worth quoting here, it concludes: “As we now turn towards implementation and action, we reiterate our resolve to inspire solidarity, hope and opportunity for current and future generations.”

If only.

Nowhere does it use the word “responsibility,” as in the “common but differentiated responsibilities” of the wealthy nations to make the most dramatic emissions cuts and to freely provide the finance and technical support so the countries of the global South could both de-carbonize their economies and meet the basic needs of their people. CBDR, as it is known, is the core climate justice principle of the founding document of the UNFCCC.

In Marrakesh, we saw no real follow-up to the Paris Agreement. And just as in the 2011-2015 four year period leading up to the Agreement, they will slide soundlessly through COPs 23 and 24 before getting serious [they’re not] again at COP 25.

Remember what Philippine negotiator Yeb Saño said so dramatically in Warsaw at COP 19 in 2013, weeping as he spoke these words: “It is the 19th COP, but we might as well stop counting, because my country refuses to accept that a COP30 or a COP40 will be needed to solve climate change. And because it seems that despite the significant gains we have had since the UNFCCC was born, 20 years hence we continue to fail in fulfilling the ultimate objective of the Convention…. We cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate stalemate. It is now time to take action. We need an emergency climate pathway.”

Sadly, the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage that Saño fasted for in 2013, created to bring quick relief to areas and countries wrecked by extreme weather events, had already absolved the global North from legal responsibility for global warming in the 2015 Paris Agreement, and now saw its “work plan” for getting up and running set at five years, starting in 2017. So, nations of the global South must now hope against all odds that there will be no devastating weather events until at least 2022. In such ways do words end up killing people. Real people. The global North not guilty.

WTHR? Where is the historical responsibility? Why does Yeb Saño’s refusal to sit around till COP 30 or 40 have to be repudiated so shamefully?


In the more palatable version of my title and theme, climate activists at the COP have been waging a campaign they call “WTF” – “Where’s the Finance?” This refers to the failure of wealthy nations to come anywhere near providing the figure of $100 billion annually which they have given themselves till 2020 to save up for that the nations on the frontline of climate catastrophe mentioned in the opening paragraph will need to adapt to the inevitable extremes that are coming their way. One hundred billion dollars a year is probably less than ten percent of what is truly going to be needed, and since Paris, some climate campaigners and even UNFCCC participants refer to as “shifting the trillions.”

On this issue, Marrakesh failed to deliver, and instead, in the usual UNFCCC way used creative accounting, relying on the time they still have to find the rest, and a slew of other tricks to mask this moral failure, which properly lies at the feet of those who bear historic responsibility for the problem of climate change, the wealthy countries of the global North.

Aneesa Khan of the group Earth in Brackets explained this. “The way that this climate finance process has been happening right now has us saying, ‘WTF?’ Where’s the finance? Where’s the equity? Where’s the justice? This money is not a compensation. This money is not out of pity. This money is a debt that is owed to those on the front lines of climate change, and they deserve it right now. So, say with me, ‘WTF?’ ‘Where’s the finance?’”

Sophie Yeo of Carbon Brief provides a long, clear account of the complexities of the finance question, putting the most hopeful face on the figures, but still concludes “By all accounts, meeting the $100 billion target remains some way off.”

Contrast this with what the Climate Vulnerable Alliance of four dozen of the world’s frontline nation-states offered, and that was to “meet 100 percent domestic renewable energy production as rapidly as possible, while working to end energy poverty and protect water and food security.”

WTJ. Where’s the justice?

Save for one excellent roundup of the radical wing of civil society and movement opinion, all the accounts of the outcome that I have seen agree more or less that this so-called “implementation COP” was more or less satisfactory, though lacking in details and dramatic steps forward. In her valuable assessment, “COP 22: ‘One Step Closer Towards a Climate that is Incompatible with Dignified Life’,” Christiane Kliemann of Degrowth blog, got the story (some of the quotes below can be found in a Climate Justice Info Service press release titled “Initial Response from Climate Justice Groups to Marrakech Outcomes”):

So it comes as no surprise that environmental campaigners and climate justice activists reacted with “extreme disappointment” to the outcome of the summit, saying it was “again heavy on rhetoric and light on real progress, with rich countries failing to do enough to help the developing world.” Lidy Nacpil of the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development said: “In Marrakech, all the developed countries did was try to evade and postpone their responsibilities, insisting on highly questionable methods for calculating their financial contributions to mask the paltry reality.”…

To quote Asad Rehman: “The outcome of Marrakech failed to change the dangerous course we are on – no matter how it’s spun it’s real cuts in carbon pollution that matter. Now as we look towards 2018, we have a last throw of the dice to beef up those climate targets. Failure is simply not an option if we value our planet and the lives of our fellow citizens.”

Finally, looking ahead to those next COPs (they keep turning up, regularly, every year), we have this fascinating bit of UNFCCC planning:

The talks will continue long after Marrakech. That much is certain. Unusually, though, one of the key questions this year was where. The location of the forthcoming COPs are usually decided several years in advance, but UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa expressed concern early on in the negotiations that no country had offered to host the next set of talks. By tradition, they rotate around a set cycle of regions, with a country offering to host the talks from within each region.

Fiji eventually stepped up to the task offering to be the next president, although the negotiations themselves will – due to a lack of capacity in the Pacific island state – take place in Bonn, Germany, where the UNFCCC is headquartered. Poland has expressed interest in hosting the 2018 conference, with the 2019 conference due to take place in Latin America or the Caribbean.

The irony of climate-battered Fiji having to step up to host COP 23 when no other nation wanted to, but then having to host it in Germany because of a lack of resources to do so, meaning that delegates will miss a golden opportunity to experience what climate change outside the negotiating halls really looks like, then having dirty-energy leader Poland take charge of COP 24 when they had just UN F*Ck’ed the world only three years ago, is stunningly breath-taking, and shows a deep disconnect between the UNFCCC and reality. Or maybe it just illustrates the fatal limitations of current global political “realities.” Unrealities is more like it.

UN F*ck number 3:
No response to the accelerating deterioration of the planet

While the UNFCCC makes plans for plans, sets up three-year timelines to develop this or that mechanism, declares that it will produce a “rule book” for making the Paris Agreement operational, continues to discuss how to come up with the funds, we may well ask: WTR? What’s the reality?

Roz Pidcock of CarbonBrief offers this sobering big picture of our chances to meet the Agreement’s empty promise of keeping global warming to well under two degrees and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible:

By the end of 2016, total global emissions since the start of the industrial era will total 565 billion tonnes of carbon – or 92% of the carbon budget for 1.5C.

Expressed a different way, there are just over four years’ worth of current emissions left before it becomes unlikely that we’ll meet the 1.5C target without overshooting and relying on unproven “negative emissions” technologies to remove large amounts of CO2 out of the air later in the century.

If the UN process has no credible response to the impending apocalypse, what then should or can we do? How do we actually UNF*Ck the UNFCCC?

That’s part of a much larger discussion about what the movement must figure out in the months and years to come. And that discussion is now underway.

What’s clear to those of us who now find ourselves in the long nightmare of Trump’s USA is that it is us, we ourselves in the US climate justice movement, who bear the largest responsibility for confronting and countering the climate chaos that Trump’s administration is poised to accelerate and unleash upon the world. Think of it as CBDR.

This movement now needs to step it up. Things were already urgent before the election. They are especially urgent now. 2017 looms largely on our horizon, like the magnificent recent full supermoon. Can we make our movement as big, bold, beautiful, loving, and strong as Mother Earth’s reminder of the awesome beauty we are fighting for?

It seems we must. In the end, let’s hope the people have the last word.